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Business sense and sensibility, 1950s style

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, A Novel, Sloan Wilson, Four Walls Eight Windows: 280 pp., $13.95 paper

November 03, 2002|James Wolcott | James Wolcott is the author of "The Catsitters" and is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.

It's hard stifling a hippo yawn whenever the fiction of the 1950s is discussed. Inevitably, the same novels are laid upon the altar. "Invisible Man." "The Adventures of Augie March." "The Catcher in the Rye." "From Here to Eternity." But some of the defining novels of the 1950s loiter on the pop outskirts of literary permanence, addictive middlebrow potboilers that may never be inducted into the Modern Library and yet continue to beckon. I'm thinking of such classic paperback-rack sensations as Grace Metalious' "Peyton Place," Meyer Levin's "Compulsion" and the novel with the most ghostly grip of them all, Sloan Wilson's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit."

A blockbuster upon publication in 1955 ("Over 2 million copies sold" boasts the 1966 paperback edition), the novel captured and bottled a floating anxiety, a sour malaise, that belied the peppy froth of Patti Page records and TV jingles. Like "The Organization Man" and "The Lonely Crowd," its title became an instant catch phrase, an ID badge for a queasy decade. Over time, the tag peeled off and floated around loose, mixed up in some readers' minds with the title of Mary McCarthy's post-coital story "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt." The reissue of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" by Four Walls Eight Windows pastes the label back on the original contents. This is one 1950s revival that doesn't tickle with nostalgia. The writing is vigorous, unvarnished, tartly observant; its overhanging disquietude isn't dated -- if anything, it's deepened. To ensure relevance, this edition features a new and somewhat nasal introduction by bestselling novelist Jonathan Franzen, author of "The Corrections."

Like Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone," another strange marriage of humanistic ideals and atomic dread, "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" has a plain, humdrum surface that stretches like a flimsy plank over the abyss. One slip could result in starless freefall. Its hero even has his own existential mantra, warding off fear before each major step into the unknown by repeating to himself, "It doesn't really matter. Here goes nothing ...."

Tom Rath, the novel's protagonist, resides with his wife and kids in a suburban home in Westport, Conn., that no one would ever mistake for the tidy nest in "Father Knows Best." It's a hunched eyesore beset with weeds, mildew and "a thousand petty shabbinesses," a monument to futility. A crack in the plaster in the shape of a question mark haunts the living room as if the house itself were crying, "What went wrong? Why am I falling apart?"

Puttering sideways in a job at a charitable foundation, Rath is unable to maintain the homestead, much less renovate, an inadequacy flaunted in his face at every neighborhood cocktail party. "Budgets were frankly discussed, and the public celebration of increases in salary was common. The biggest parties of all were moving-out parties, given by those who were finally able to buy a bigger house" -- i.e., leave the old dump behind. Those who don't aspire to attain a larger pile of lumber elsewhere are eyed as losers: "On Greentree Avenue, contentment was an object of contempt."

Rath chances into a nebulous job in the PR department of a broadcasting company that promises a bigger paycheck and possible advancement. Hired to help package and promote a hazily conceived public awareness campaign for mental health -- the pet project of the company's president, Ralph Hopkins -- he learns fast that proximity to the boss doesn't spare him from being browbeaten by his immediate higher-ups. A paratrooper during World War II (the flashback battle scenes have the erratic pulse, sudden reversals and ground-hugging confusion of Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage"), Rath soon grasps that corporate bureaucracy has become a postwar extension of military hierarchy and regimentation and that his war record doesn't compensate for lack of business experience. His virgin status and vague role reduce him to a raw recruit in a civilian army in which executives are the officer corps, the gray flannel suit is "the uniform of the day" and the CEO is more than a general, he's a supreme thinker perched at the aerie of the corporate pyramid.

The stupendous vistas that greet Rath from the windows of Hopkins' penthouse office create the illusion of the floor as a floating stage, "a platform suspended in mid-air." Popping out from behind his vast desk, Hopkins strikes the reader at first as a walking anticlimax and Babbitty cliche, a windup toy of can-do energy and vacuous chitchat. It's a charade that over the course of the novel poignantly unravels. Like Rath (who, having survived the war, can't fathom why he's still scared -- "I thought peace was supposed to be peaceful"), Hopkins is racked by unspecified wants and hungers, a hollow sense of something missing, something climactic.

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